Dinosaurs in the Age of the Cinemobile

9 December, 2010 (09:19) | by Richard T. Jameson, Essays, Industry | By: Richard T. Jameson

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit'

WHEN BILLY WILDER’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, no one would give it the time of day – literally. In my city, though a cozy relationship with United Artists forced the local theater circuit to book the film into one of the few remaining downtown movie palaces, they had no expectation that it would attract an audience. If you called the theater, asked “When’s the next show?”, and acted accordingly, you would arrive to find yourself in midfilm. Telephone lines had been juggled so that the staff could handle incoming calls for the sister theater across the street, where Love Story was doing land-office business. It never occurred to them that anyone might be interested in “the show” on their own screen, so they automatically gave out the Love Story schedule.

This was an extraordinary case – even if we set aside the outré management practice (I have never heard of a comparable instance of procedural hara-kiri) and the eventual recognition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as at the very least an enchanting entertainment, and at best one of the summum masterworks of the cinema. (On that first weekend, the only one the film would have, I watched the evening show with seven other people in the auditorium.) Yet the film’s complete failure in 1970 was, in several respects, definitive of that moment in film history.

For one thing, Holmes was just the sort of sumptuously appointed, nostalgically couched superproduction that once would have seemed tailor-made to rule the holiday season. Only two Christmases before, Carol Reed’s Oliver! had scored a substantial hit, and gone on to win Academy Awards for itself and its director (a “fallen idol” two decades past his prime). Yet in 1969-70, the mid-Sixties vogue for three- and four-hour roadshows – reserved-seat special attractions with souvenir programmes and intermissions – abruptly bottomed out. Indeed, after witnessing such box-office debacles (and lousy movies) as Star and Paint Your Wagon, United Artists demanded that Wilder shorten his film by nearly an hour before they would release it at all.

But for the buying public, length wasn’t the issue. This was a new era, defined by the “youth culture” and Vietnam War protests, by the X-rated urban fable Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), and by the political-picaresque Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) – especially the latter, a road movie made entirely on the road, a triumph of that ministudio-on-wheels, the Cinemobile. In such a climate, the U.S. audience couldn’t have been less interested in a passionately romantic meditation on a 19th-century icon realized principally on exquisitely dressed sets of 221B Baker Street, the Diogenes Club, and a Scottish castle with a mechanical monster in the cellarage. (A year earlier, Italian maestro Sergio Leone had found U.S. audiences similarly inhospitable to his equally passionate, equally romantic meditation on the 19th-century West and also on classical Hollywood filmmaking, Once Upon a Time in the West, even if its politics were at least as contemporary as those of Easy Rider. Like Holmes, Once Upon a Time in the West would also eventually be embraced as a masterpiece.)

Holmes fell outside the 1970 pale in yet another important aspect. Billy Wilder is, was, and always had been an obsessively complete screenwriter, not content to go into production until every image and every wisecrack dovetailed in a complex gestalt of cross-reference and mutual reflection – the well-made script ready for transliteration into the well-made film. Yet the rallying cry of the Sixties’ self-proclaimed “Film Generation” – after “Is it [sociopolitically] relevant?” – was: “The cinema is a visual medium.” This accorded with a decade-old, French New Wave-inspired reaction against the tyranny of “literary” standards of cinematic value and, on a positive level, the championing of such dynamic “auteurs” as Hitchcock, Fuller, and the besides-Kane Orson Welles. But just as the auteurist movement undervalued the writerly virtues of Wilder, John Huston, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, turn-of-the-Seventies cinema often seemed in danger of rejecting narrative itself in preference for orgies of rack focus, jump cuts, handheld camera, and arrant razzle-dazzle. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was not only a loving tribute to the legendmaking of Arthur Conan Doyle, an appreciation of the pleasures of seeing a story come together before one’s eyes (how enchanting is that moment when six missing circus midgets, tossed off as a verbal jeu d’esprit in the opening scene, become a flesh-and-blood presence in the film a year, and an hour and a half of screentime, later); it’s a film about the consolations of imagination, the pain and transcendence of wresting fictive art from growth and heartbreak. But neither narrative nor growth were relevant at the cusp of the Seventies.

Neither was the generation of artists and craftsmen by whom, in a very real sense, the movies had been invented. Some of them were already out of the game, whether they knew or accepted it: Fritz Lang, John Ford, King Vidor, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh. Jean Renoir and George Stevens each made his last film in 1969 (both in France, no matter that the town in Stevens’s The Only Game in Town was Las Vegas). William Wyler signed his last film in 1970 (The Liberation of L.B. Jones, a study in racial inequity eclipsed-in-advance by the flashy 1967 Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night). So did Howard Hawks, though to his dying day seven years hence he was still “working on a script” for one of several projects.

Others would keep working, however problematically. Two stalwarts of MGM in its heyday, Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor, provided contrasting studies in survival in the poststudio world. Minnelli’s need for a strong, sympathetic producer (a role frequently played by John Houseman or Arthur Freed) was apparent in the misproportioned On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (made in 1968, reworked and released in 1970), at the mercy of the monstrous mythology of Barbra Streisand while – more damning in retrospect – failing utterly to know what to do with an apparently bland young player named Jack Nicholson. Minnelli’s swan song, the 1976 A Matter of Time, would find him hopelessly adrift in Italy, dubbed English, and Color by Movielab – a coarse and pathetic environment for a man who dreamed in boldest Technicolor.

Cukor also flailed – drawing the compromised assignment of Justine (1969) after Josephs Mankiewicz and Strick were aced out of the project, and finding himself helpless to wring a single vital note out of The Blue Bird (1976), the much-bruited, instantly forgotten first U.S.-Soviet coproduction. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he also managed to stay in work, and often in good form. Travels With My Aunt (1971), underrated by most of the press, was mainstream Cukor, ravishingly visualized and superbly acted by Alec McCowen (though it would be Maggie Smith, strenuously mannered in replacement of Katharine Hepburn, who drew a token Oscar nomination). Cukor had one more great film in him, even if it had to be made for television: Love Among the Ruins (1975), an exquisite comedy-romance with Hepburn and Laurence Olivier that fulfilled a legend arcing back to his fascinating 1935 “failure” Sylvia Scarlett (also starring Hepburn). He and Hepburn likewise made The Corn Is Green for television in 1979, and at 81 Cukor became the oldest director to complete (and admirably, too) a Hollywood feature, 1981′s Rich and Famous.

* * *

ONE OLD MASTER who never lost the security of a studio home (Universal) – and rarely left it, even for “location” sequences – was Alfred Hitchcock. In 1960 Hitchcock’s Psycho had, along with Wilder’s The Apartment, decisively marked the incoming decade as an epoch of new trenchancy in American filmmaking, of overturning old truths and shaking up convention, on screen and in the world at large. But Psycho was also Hitchcock’s last big hit (as 1963′s Irma La Douce was Wilder’s). His ensuing films became increasingly abstract essays in what critic Robin Wood, in a landmark 1966 book, Hitchcock’s Films, called “pure cinema.” Seen directly as compositions in time and space, form and color, cold logic and fiercely contained emotion, The Birds, Marnie, and Torn Curtain were indisputably masterworks – that is, works by a master – thrilling to auteurist critics as extensions and elaboration of a screen language and vision unparalleled in cinema history. General audiences found them less satisfying. They missed the nimble wit and elegance of North by Northwest, the closing-trap suspense of Rear Window and Psycho, the glamour and centripetal star presence of Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. With the likes of Rod Taylor, ‘Tippi’ Hedren, and the not-yet-beloved Sean Connery in the leads, the only star was Hitchcock himself. And when he did cast two stars in Torn Curtain, he used them only for marquee value. When Julie Andrews, realizing that her lover Paul Newman has apparently betrayed not only her but his country, bows her head in sorrow, the emotional expressiveness of the moment inheres not in the actress’s performance but in the virtual liquefaction of the image as softening focus translates her into a trembling yellow-and-tan blur.

The rhythms of filmmaking careers were changing in the Sixties and Seventies. Whereas in previous decades an Alfred Hitchcock or a Howard Hawks managed one, two, even three films a year, now the ratio had been reversed. Topaz came out at the very end of 1969, more than three years after the release of Torn Curtain. Like its predecessor, it was a spy film far removed from the larky multiple-destruction mode of the then-regnant James Bond series, and the working press took it as confirmation of Hitchcock’s waning. Who was this Frederick Stafford, a European sub-Bond nearly as flat and metallic as his Berlitz accent or fixed expression, drafted to play a distinctly dull French intelligence agent in Washington? How was a moviegoer supposed to relate to a plot that, unlike that of Notorious or The 39 Steps, kept many of the characters from ever meeting? And what did the “Master of Suspense” expect to accomplish by telling a behind-the-scenes story about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 – didn’t we all know how that one turned out?

The answer to the last question is, of course, that Topaz isn’t “about” the Cuban missile crisis, any more than Notorious was about uranium ore in wine bottles. At a time when streets, campuses, and “youth movies” were filled with rants against “the Establishment,” Hitchcock filmed a supremely lucid, supremely disenchanted critique of just what Establishments, Governments, Powers were up to, and how and how much it cost in individual human suffering. The last shot of the film has an anonymous citizen glance at a headline announcing the resolution of the missile crisis. Over the newspaper appears a montage of faces from earlier in the film – “heroes” and “villains” alike – contorted in pain: this is what that headline cost. And then the man nonchalantly tosses the paper aside.

Although that wasn’t the first ending to be filmed (Hitchcock discarded at least two others), it fulfills the logic of the film succinctly. From the main title sequence, when grainy newsreel footage of a Soviet May Day parade focuses closer and closer in on the machinery of war to the exclusion of human beings, Topaz defines a world of heartless pattern. This extends to the precise framing and rhyming camera movements that link, and judge, the dramatis personae caught in the machinery of plot. The same visual strategy measures the moments when nominal hero Stafford (close to the camera, facing forward, in focus) takes leave of wife Dany Robin (in the background, out of focus) to rendezvous with his Cuban agent/lover, and later when that lover, Karin Dor (up front, facing forward, in focus), listens to his departure (rear of the shot, out of focus) from her Havana home and knows that she is saving him and dooming herself. Likewise, when a closeup camera tracks known double agent Philippe Noiret into the interior of a Paris hideaway, it reveals the man holding open the door for him – and tells us, before the dialogue can, that this man, Michel Piccoli, is Noiret’s spymaster, the leader of “Topaz.” At the end of the sequence the same camera strategy brings Stafford’s wife through the same door. We already know whom she will find, though the motive for their clandestine meeting is entirely different. For Hitchcock, the symmetry of betrayal is not stylistically facile but morally essential.

It was an article of faith with Hitchcock that the stronger the villain, the better the movie. The villains of Topaz are infinitely more appealing, and better acted, than the nominal good guys of Stafford and his CIA friend John Forsythe. (It should be noted there are also marvelously droll characterizations by Roscoe Lee Browne, as a Harlem florist-cum-secret agent, and Per-Axel Arosenius as a Soviet defector contemptuous of his U.S. saviors.) Sympathy extends beyond appreciation for these actors’ watchability. Noiret’s traitor, with a crippled right side and a deep wistfulness, is a heartbreakingly vulnerable figure; Piccoli is a boyish, solicitous lover, mortally abashed when he realizes his treachery has been discovered. But the most complex and shocking vulnerability is displayed by John Vernon as the quintessential cigar-chomping, khaki-clad Fidelista with Castro beard who is Stafford’s rival for Dor’s affections. When Vernon hears her name whispered into his ear by a dying torture victim, Hitchcock cuts to the piercing blue of his eyes, then to his powerful hands braced against his rather too plushy thighs, to communicate not the vehemence of a totalitarian but the pain of a wounded lover. Vernon’s final embrace with Dor, as he commits a murder that is equal parts act of revenge and act of mercy, culminates in one of the most perversely ecstatic images Hitchcock ever wrought: a bird’s-eye vertical shot in which Dor’s life bleeds away in the spreading violet pool of her dress.

There was no finer political film in that turbulently politicized era.

* * *

IF, AS MANY HISTORIANS have contended, the Vietnam War represented the last spasm of American frontierism, we should not be surprised that one venerable Hollywood genre enjoyed an enhanced profile as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies: the Western. Nineteen sixty-nine alone brought Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the John Wayne-Henry Hathaway True Grit, the U.S. release of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and, at year’s end, Abraham Polonsky’s relentlessly revisionist Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Additionally, though neither was itself a Western, those bellwethers of the new era, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, each explicitly invoked the genre (in their very titles), its imagery, landscape, and simplistic heroism, as an index of a lost purity and clarity of purpose, and implicitly suggested that the old verities were in fact lies that had poisoned the American consciousness from the gitgo.

Even a cursory examination of the meanings, attitudes, and methods of these films would exceed the scope of our mission here. Suffice it to note, then, that (with the singular exception of Willie Boy, the first film in 21 years to be directed by blacklistee Abraham Polonsky), only one of these 1969 films was made by an Old Hollywood hand. In visual style and narrative craftsmanship, True Grit is utterly of a piece with the solid, unpretentious genre work, in and out of the Western, that Henry Hathaway had been reliably producing for nearly four decades. At a glance, its chief distinction, perhaps even its raison d’être, lay in the fact that its star of stars, John Wayne, had grown old, massively thick, and epically crotchety – and was cheerfully prepared to make great sport of this as a recipe for renewing the affection of his traditional audience while also inspiring a grudging tolerance among those who had dismissed or deplored him in earlier manifestations.

Come Academy Award season in 1970, Wayne was up against the epochal performances of both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (in which the title of his 1960 labor of love, The Alamo, can be seen falling off the marquee of a Texas moviehouse), and also his personal notoriety as an apologist for the Vietnam War (he had produced and directed as well as starring in the shoddy, jingoistic The Green Berets in 1968). Still, no one was surprised at his sentimental victory. Curiously, it was his admirers who tended most to criticize it. (A quarter-century later, with two subsequent Oscar victories of his own as consolation, Dustin Hoffman would observe that the Academy had done the right thing.) They resented that, whereas Wayne had been an exemplary professional and occasionally (Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Searchers) a superb actor, he could win widespread validation only by putting on an eyepatch and making a broad caricature of himself.

They had a point. But what both the affection for and regret over Wayne’s performance tended to obscure was that True Grit is a splendid movie. With characters, situations, and above all dialogue carried over from an excellent novel by Charles Portis, the picture had a feeling for frontier life, language, and protocol that remains exemplary in the genre. Hathaway was always a redoubtable pictorialist, serving up unostentatious, deeply gratifying compositions in which action and place are framed to mutual enhancement. He had the eye of a children’s storyteller, neither romantic à la John Ford nor expressionistic à la Anthony Mann. Abetted by veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard (whose foursquare, primary Technicolor images are as satisfying as, if radically distinct from, his dynamic work for Peckinpah this same year), he creates a heart-stirring canvas of the West, from the homely town of Fort Smith – with train station, courthouse, and the gallows in the town square in civilizing contiguity – to the trembling aspen forests, picturesque arroyos, and long, deep mountain meadows of the Indian Nation through which the quest of Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) leads.

The performances are unanimously worthy, even the advisedly stiff-limbed, exasperatingly resolute heroine of Kim Darby and the amateurish but endearing celebrity turn of singer Glen Campbell as a career-conscious Texas Ranger who “expects to marry well.” There are flavorful supporting roles for Jeff Corey, John Doucette, and Strother Martin (also memorable in The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy). And without chafing against the implacable classicism of Hathaway’s direction, that echt-Seventies-star-to-be Robert Duvall (also featured that year in Francis Coppola’s The Rain People) takes the part of outlaw leader “Lucky Ned” Pepper and makes him one of the worthiest, most complex adversaries Wayne ever had.

True Grit is, then, like a film of the Thirties or Forties that had no trouble winning popularity at the end of the Sixties. In one respect, however, it is very much a film of its time. For all the gusto of Wayne’s portrayal, Cogburn’s lot is a sad one – living in a room behind a general store, drinking himself to sleep, supporting himself on the bounty for chasing down society’s miscreants (and often having to terrorize the bounty posters into paying up), with only the dim memory of a wife and son who hated him. (The key, Oscar-cinching scene in the film is a midnight reverie on a lonely hill during which Wayne seems imbued with the shade of W.C. Fields.) And the movie has an extraordinary sense of pain – grotesque, horrible, matter-of-fact. Without light to see by, Darby hesitates to eat a biscuit from Wayne’s pouch because it may be stained by the blood of men he has just killed; bodies being packed over horseback threaten to be jostled off along the trail. And there is one ferocious scene in a smoky cabin: Wayne is grilling trapped outlaw Dennis Hopper (veteran of a tempestuous earlier collaboration with Hathaway, From Hell to Texas) while his partner, Jeremy Slate, hacks at the corpse of a turkey that has already been blown to pieces by Ranger Campbell’s Sharps rifle (“Too much gun”). The tension mounts horrifically, and is capped by Slate’s lopping off Hopper’s fingers to stop him from talking, being shot by Wayne, and stabbing Hopper in the gut with his dying breath. It is more terrible than anything in The Wild Bunch, though few troubled to remark it at the time.

Wayne and Hollywood’s other veteran HH, Howard Hawks, would fare less successfully the following year with Rio Lobo. Like Hawks’s previous film, El Dorado (made 1965, released ’67), Rio Lobo breaks rather awkwardly into two sections: a Civil War escapade pitting Union officer Wayne against some resourceful young Confederate guerrillas, and a postwar tale in which Wayne and his former enemies join forces to save a Texas town from a wealthy rancher and his corrupt sheriff. The narrative break in El Dorado was occasioned by Hawks’s decision to abandon a Greek-tragedy storyline he found too grim and improvise the rest of the movie as a wry, self-reflexive reworking of his 1959 Rio Bravo; the result was another Hawks-Wayne classic. Rio Lobo, in its final reels, plays snatch-and-grab with elements of both those noble films, but the carryovers are perfunctory in the extreme.

The Civil War section begins promisingly with the Rebels’ hijacking of a gold train being guarded by Wayne’s troop. Hawks shapes it as an essay in military organization and communication, climaxing in the exuberant spectacle of a runaway railroad car tearing up a Southern pine forest by the roots (the Confederates have lashed ropes across the track to brake it). But once Wayne becomes the Rebels’ captive and the usual Hawks strategies for establishing rapport between worthy adversaries – the exchange and repetition of lines, ruses, joke insults – come into play, the gambit feels warmed over and the players just “aren’t good enough.”

In El Dorado Hawks had made his and Wayne’s aging the virtual subject of the film and developed the theme with humor, affection, and not a little wisdom. Here it is reduced to a running gag about Wayne’s having become an unintimidating presence – “comfortable” – as far as his youthful co-players, especially the women in the Texas section, are concerned. Apart from the train robbery (largely shot, one assumes, by second-unit director Yakima Canutt), the visuals are unimpressive, even shoddy, Hawks and/or his cameraman making frequent resort to lazy zooms. Most dismayingly, Hawks’s judgment about performers, once the sharpest in Hollywood, appears to have deserted him. Jorge Rivero (as the ranking ex-Confederate) and Jennifer O’Neill (the most prominent of the several young women) are not merely hopeless at romantic badinage – they’re barely competent to read their lines. Victor French (the wicked rancher) and musclebound Mike Henry (the sheriff) are lumpen successors to John Russell, Ed Asner, and El Dorado‘s enigmatic gunfighter Christopher George; and Jack Elam, though he briefly brings spastic life to the proceedings, is florid and one-note as the “crazy old coot” figure so triumphantly limned previously in the trilogy by Walter Brennan and Arthur Hunnicutt.

If Rio Lobo marks a dispiriting conclusion to one of the greatest of Western series and greatest of directorial careers, 1970 also saw the first Western directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The honored creator of some of the most civilized comedy-dramas in Hollywood history (A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, Five Fingers), Mankiewicz inherited a sardonic screenplay by Bonnie and Clyde writers David Newman and Robert Benton, who had originally written it under the title Hell with Donald Siegel cast as director. The match was not as incongruous as it may sound. Short on scenery, six-guns, and horses, There Was a Crooked Man… is fundamentally a study in mendacity on the part of a Mephistophelean criminal (Kirk Douglas) willing to seduce and betray not only anybody but, preferably, everybody to get what he wants. Most of the narrative takes place in a territorial prison surrounded by fifty miles of desert.

In phase with the spirit of the day, Mankiewicz and Newman-Benton hog-tie and up-end every Western convention they can throw a lasso over. Douglas robs the leading businessman of a Southwest town, then is captured only because he pauses to dally at a whorehouse frequented by his victim. (The judge frequents it as well, and hence is particularly harsh in his sentence.) A Western lawman (Henry Fonda) is so puritanically obsessed with running whores (indeed, sex) out of his town that he doesn’t notice breaches of the law like a holdup on Main Street in broad daylight. When, belatedly, he braces the robber and lays down his own gun to persuade the fellow to disarm, he doesn’t get respect – he gets shot in the leg. The lawman, a knowing caricature of a modern liberal (played by an actor who shared such politics), winds up as warden to the prison where Douglas is incarcerated; his attempts at reform, and at befriending the charming rogue, only increase the havoc Douglas is ultimately able to wreak.

Mankiewicz, an exemplary sophisticate who had long been frustrated by Hollywood’s built-in forms of censorship, had only his innate good taste to restrain him in the new age of R ratings. A prostitute, rousted naked in her bed, attempts to sway Fonda by lowering the sheet. (A similar nude scene was a source of palpable discomfort for Henry Hathaway and actors Gregory Peck and Rita Gam in 1971′s Shoot Out.) John Randolph and Hume Cronyn, two con artists sent to prison at the same time as Douglas, prove to be a sweet parody of a long-married couple, and there is a wealth of homoerotic innuendo involving a prison guard, the pre-Fonda warden, a truculent loner (Warren Oates) who takes Douglas for his first and only friend, and indeed the fixation Fonda forms for Douglas. And in a quintessential Sixties gesture Newman and Benton throw in a prison lifer – Burgess Meredith as “The Missouri Kid” – who patiently tends a marijuana crop through rain and drought.

Despite the hipness of its writing team, the august reputation of its director (it was Mankiewicz’s best film since Cleopatra broke his career), a solid cast, and the up-to-dateness of its attitude and satire, There Was a Crooked Man… did not find an audience at the end of 1970. Even in that disenchanted time, it was scarcely a holiday picture, and its view of human nature was relentlessly bleak. Perhaps it was really ahead of its time; the early Seventies would bring a rash of nihilistic Westerns that got more bookings without displaying its wit, intelligence, or pedigree, and all of them did more business. But Mankiewicz’s work on the film left a more enduring legacy. Enraptured by his personal style as a Hollywood elder statesman, Newman and Benton took him as the model for their wonderful outlaw creation “Big Joe” (played by near-lookalike David Huddleston) in Benton’s 1972 directorial debut Bad Company. And they gave Big Joe one of Joe L.’s oft-repeated lines: “I’m the oldest whore on the block.”

THE END

This article was commissioned for inclusion in a book, The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood 1967-1976, edited by Alexander Horwath and published in connection with the 1995 Viennale. An English-language version of the book (with the subtitle changed to New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s) was published by Amsterdam University Press in 2004, edited by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King.

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